Dear friends and readers,
While I was reading and writing about two books which significantly extend the two kinds of rape usually discussed under the umbrella terms of “simple” and “aggravated” (Georgiana’s The Sylph and Marta Hillers’ A Woman in Berlin), I found myself reading Preston Sturges’s shooting script for Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and then watched the 1944 movie directed & produced by the same man, which movie to my astonishment turned out to be a rape story of a particularly mean type: our heroine, Trudy, has been raped after she became unconscious from too much liquor (which the film laughingly refers to as odd or sour lemonade). We never find out which man did it; in the film the word rape is never used; there is acknowledgement the heroine has become pregnant, but for all the talk we hear about it, it might as well have been a virgin birth, with this “miracle” corresponding to the 1934 Miracle on 34th Street, and that to the asserted Christian belief their mother of God, Mary, had been a virgin.
This is the central event (also not dramatized) of Kleist’s once notorious The Marquise of O , adapted for a film by Eric Rohmer — during an assault on her country by invaders (as a virtuous woman she would of course never be drunk), the Marquise, a widow (so our sensibilities over her virginity are not aroused), is raped by a soldier unknown to her. When her pregnancy emerges, and her parents find out, they treat her cruelly and eject her from their home. She has one to return to so the question may turn on discovering who the man was.
We see how the solider comes forward, falls in love and is forgiven. The text 7 film, then, to some extent deal with the subject of rape, of assault on women during war. Like Clarissa, who is drugged (the rape is dramatized), the heroine is absolved automatically – this absolution by unconsciousness is typical of rapes in novels of the 18th century (more of them, alas, are of the commoner false accusation type).
But Trudy was not assaulted in war. She got drunk. Or did she? I was alerted to the existence of this 1940s hit (you can probably see it on Turner Classics) by Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, the Hays Code, and the Benefits of Censorship whose subject is the effect of the Hays Code on movies from the 1930s to the 1950s and (to her) analogous severe censorship of Victorian Novels by Mudie’s Circulating Library and other engines of repression in the 19th century. I did not realize it was about rape until I watched it as, except for quoting a parenthetical punning remark by a contemporary critic, James Agee that “the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep,” Gilbert does not tell the reader the film’s core event that generates all the action is a rape.
In my research on rapes in fiction and non-fiction I discovered how rarely rape is treated seriously, and how common stories of false accusations for rape (despite the reality that rape is common, and accusation for it uncommon as the woman is usually shamed, disbelieved and ends up punished for telling). Thus how hard it is to find writing about rape until the mid-20th century when it began to emerge in feminist sociological and psychological studies. I had not considered another obstacle: the story about rape where the word is never mentioned, the thing never discussed when all the while the events of the story show us a particularly contemptible form of rape must have occurred. How would one find Miracle of Morgan’s Creek when it’s listed merely as a screwball comedy, frothy, light exquisitely funny romance. It’s a rare work on rape in mainstream art before the mid-20th century.
As the film opens, our heroine, Trudy Kockenlocker, is readying herself by putting on the most glamorous and sexiest (not admitted to of course) of outfits , in order to attend a dance put on for the soldiers about to go off to war to fight. Her father, Officer Kockenlocker (now notice the name which includes “cock”, a “cock” who locks something in), played by Wm Demarest as a comic dense bully, refuses her permission without quite saying why. It’s somehow risky, dangerous. Trudy objects that it’s her duty to dance the night away with soldiers going off to war. Stills show her winning scuffles with her father:
The physical reflection of how she manages repeatedly to manipulate most situations to do what she wants in reaction to events and norms.
She gets her obedient (emasculated) boyfriend, Norval Jones to pretend he spent a long night watching movies with her while she goes off to said dance. We see her dancing with many different escorts and drinking oodles of lemonade. The joke is made more than once that this is some sour lemonade and strange, and she looks drunker and drunker and at one point she passes out. The Hays Code said one must never get drunk in a movie. We do at one point she someone dancing with her who has dark hair, and looks sort of determined, and she falls — partly a stupor, but perhaps partly hit.
Who he was we never learn, nor his name, nor how this initiating event developed. She was supposed to be back at the theater at 1:30 am, but she turns up at 8 am — it’s dawn in the film. Norval has waited all night first looking out for her anxiously, and then asleep on a bench.
But as Trudy and Norval drive home, she begins to remember where she’s been and half-recalls a marriage: on her finger is a curtain ring. 3 months later we see a doctor tell her she is pregnant without using that word.
The rest of the movie presents the coniption fits Trudy and Norval go through to provide her with a husband (him, using the ludicrous name Trudy thinks up — it has many syllables and x’s), and to hide her shame. Gilbert argues that the Hays censorship made for great art: certainly no one would tell the story of such a rape in the way it’s told if there had been no Hays code administered in the way it was. You could get a movie to pass by handing in the script for approval. It passes because in the words of the script she has not been raped; she was married and therefore cannot have been raped. Tease this out and we could imagine a scene of marital rape (yet this level of seriousness is not allowed by everything we can point to in the film).
Norval tries to shield Trudy by marrying her — after his first retreat from her is over. At no point doe she accuse her of anything, at no point object he does not want to be the legal father of another man’s baby (though he looks uncomfortable). Their marriage is found bigamous (in a ceremony in which two women moon over how many children the couple will eventually have) and crimes of all sorts are hurled on him and before you know it he’s in jail. The film indirectly satirizes patriotism, the venerable saintly-warrior hero, shows the punitive spirit of American life even then, but the rapist is never called to account, we never see the baby, nor is it discussed how Norval is going to take over as father.
The Justice of the Peace is impounding the groom after the wedding ceremony for disobeying the law because he used Trudy’s previous husband’s name — or, a moment’s thought would tell the viewer it’s the bride who has committed bigamy
Under the Hays Code one was not allowed to show pregnant women, especially unmarried ones so during the time Trudy is huge we see her from the back sitting in a chair.
Gilbert can “get away” with citing the brilliance of Miracle because she doesn’t deal with the rape herself. Nothing is brought out into the discussably open either for those shocked silently and never bring it up and those who are aware of some serous themes here but cannot discuss them because the treatment in the films avoids the central thing it’s about — all that is brought out is Trudy’s desperate shame and how she must marry to avoid that. On one level it feels absurd to bring this screwfall comedy (rightly designated) with all its vacuities in characterization, slapstick, implicitly and explicitly misogynistic remarks (in passing as a matter of course about women) up as a story of the rape — comparing it to massacre rape, marital rape and selling, aggravated assault. But it does fall into the first traumatic category of simple rape between two people not strangers. Trudy’s desperate shame is made a joke of while it is laid before us. Frantic efforts to appear to conform do not question conformism. From what I’ve read critics have been generally divided into a group which admires the sleight-of-hand:
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek carved out its own unique niche in the annals of screen comedy by so cleverly couching its shocking material in broad slapstick and fast-paced character comedy. The film rarely allows itself the delirious abandon of so-many classic comedies, but Sturges is purposeful in this respect. We’re meant to be as anxiously involved as the characters are in their dilemmas.
Or, like me, they have been grated upon by the indifference to the core content and use of laughter: Siegfried Kracauer’s “Preston Sturges, or Laughter Betrayed,” Films in Review, 1:1 (1950):43-47
I admit to laughing and laughing at some of the sequences of wild highjinks all the characters go through, the satire on lawyers (very funny lines – reminding me Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is a traditional caricature of a lawyer in comic movies), the press, solemn pious parents. Asked about the film, Sturges voiced as his one regret (and the ostensible moral) that he was not allowed to have a clergyman deliver a sermon on how giving soldiers all they want as a gift was overdoing it. Hypocrisy prevented him from including his moralistic message against too much alcohol and sex on the night the young men were going off to war, risking their lives — today we might say to kill and/or be killed. The one target of the movie we can take seriously is the Hays Code itself. The verbal jokes which skim round what would be stark sexual content, the drinking of lemonade, how the characters say “phooey!”. Along the way various sacred cows are burlesqued. The wedding of Trudy and Norval with the two witnesses swooning and photographed so that they are seen as central as the couple. Trudy has a younger sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn) given wry realistic remarks (reminding me a bit of Margaret Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). For the record the Code was a heavily Catholic-influenced set of rules the movie industry agreed to abide by in order to fend off worse censorship; it began in 1930, was at its strictest between 1933 or so and the 1950s; its power was over when TV emerged as such tough competition the cinema felt it had to offer something TV did not, and the great movie pointed to as the first to ignore the Code, and become a respected hit was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (featuring Rod Steiger), where in lieu of an emasculated bumbling male we are given a painfully honest portrait of a seething disappointed man.
I much prefer Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to the coy prurient upper-class overrated The Lady Eve (also a Sturges product) which I’ve discovered is overrated ridiculously — both are odd masculinist movies with the male gaze on the femme fatale, one comic (Trudy), the other insinuating, orgiastic (Barbara Stanwyck is the heroine of The Lady Eve): a cartoon opening likens Eve to a smirking serpent who could easily fit in a Bugs Bunny carton.
I wonder how many other films from this era drill down to sexual aggression, topics like sexual distrust, promiscuity, sexual suspicion, male and female aggression, violence (?) are exposed in these 1940s films in such a way as to preclude discussions of the matters brought forward. All directed and produced by men, with some rare one having women screenwriters. Think of It Happened one Night, Bringing Up Baby, Rebecca (they need not be screwball comedy), His Girl Friday, the later comedies of remarriage (Adam’s Rib). Jeanine Basinger in her A woman’s View, How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 deals with some of this but her accent is on the social world, and she rightly never mentions Miracle of Morgan Creek nor Preston Sturges. He is paradoxically not really interested in women or what happens to them — as was Kleist and Rohmer, and the first text to deal with rape seriously, Richardson’s Clarissa, with its 1991 film adaptation by David Nokes. In Clarissa it’s the raped woman who goes to jail, not the man:
Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a doll-like figure, breathing softly huskily at the at times poignant Norval (Eddie Bracken — could the name come from an 18th century tragedy?), Norval timidly swooning over her. Sturges apparently thinks women are all powerful, has characters say they cover up for and prefer men who hurt them (this is a sly reference to why we cannot find out anything about the man who impregnated Trudy). The blustering father takes endless pratfalls.
Trudy is never kicked out by her father; he and the younger sister go into hiding with Trudy during the time of her pregnancy and we see a tenderly loving scene between the father and Trudy on a Christmas eve. Can we discern a private world in Miracle of Morgan Creek? I think not. Kockenlocker’s words are so generalized. Norval makes an attempt to find the rapist (this word never used) but is clueless. Had they found him, would they have reacted like Mr Bates in Downton Abbey (an accidental death engineered for the guilty man)? A delayed shock for me was at how laughter can be betrayed by destroying its possible constructive power. Yet the intriguing nature of the film — the double meanings of words, gestures, how one thing is asserted and another true — has prophetic power. A happy ending is brought about because Trudy gives birth to sextets — 6 children at once. All are so astonished at this, and of course joyous (as after all aren’t children in the marriage the point), newspapers reporters, politicians and the like come for photo opportunities, and Norval is pardoned. The script begins with this scene and the movie is conceived as one long flashback though its present tense feel soon makes us forget that:
Would anyone today dare to make fun of multiple children women inflict on themselves through “the miracles” of modern medicine? Why do women do these things to themselves? Why do men collude?